Freed Inmate Sues Bennington Police, Alleging Racial Bias | Off Message

Freed Inmate Sues Bennington Police, Alleging Racial Bias


  • Daniel Fishel
Updated at 5:06 p.m. Tuesday with comments from attorney David Williams. 

A black Brooklyn man whose drug conviction was overturned by the Vermont Supreme Court has filed a federal lawsuit against Bennington police, saying the department engaged in racial discrimination by targeting him in a 2013 traffic stop.

Shamel Alexander, who was freed in February after serving nearly three years in prison, alleges in a U.S. District Court lawsuit that officers had no evidence to justify a drug investigation and targeted him because of his race.

Alexander traveled from Albany, N.Y., to Bennington in a taxi on the night of July 11, 2013, and asked to be dropped at a Chinese restaurant downtown.

While stopped at a red light, the cab driver asked another driver, who turned out to be off-duty Bennington police detective Peter Urbanowicz, for directions to the restaurant. Urbanowicz directed them to the Lucky Dragon, then alerted Bennington police officer Andrew Hunt, who happened to be nearby, that the cab "would probably be a good stop if [Hunt] could find him doing something wrong."

Hunt pulled the taxi over, claiming the driver had a GPS unit illegally affixed to the windshield.

Police said they were interested in Alexander because they had received anonymous tips that a black man named "Sizzle," a heavyset African American, came to Bennington via taxis to deal drugs.

Though Alexander didn't match the vague physical description officers had of "Sizzle," and was not traveling with the woman said to accompany "Sizzle," officers pulled over the cab, then questioned and searched Alexander. They found 0.4 ounces of heroin and arrested him.

Alexander had no criminal record and was deemed a low risk to reoffend, but Judge Nancy Corsones ordered him to serve 10 years in prison. At the sentencing hearing, Corsones spoke of the dangers of drug dealers from "Brooklyn and Bed-Stuy" coming to Vermont.

The Vermont Supreme Court unanimously overturned Alexander's sentence in February.

"The description of Sizzle on which the police officers' suspicion of defendant was based was so broad and vague as to sweep in any large black male getting off a bus at the station in downtown Bennington, or arriving in Bennington via taxi, and thus too general and vague to exclude a large number of presumably innocent individuals," Justice Beth Robinson wrote.

The lawsuit notes that even after the Supreme Court overturned Alexander's conviction, Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette told WCAX-TV that the stop was legal, and defended his department.

"I don't see us making any changes here," Doucette told WCAX. He also told the station that, "Racial profiling does not go on within this agency and I wouldn't allow it. That did not happen here."

"Doucette's response demonstrates a preexisting and continuing disregard and indifference to the constitutional and statutory rights of individuals in Bennington," the lawsuit says.

Doucette did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

Black people constitute 1.2 percent of Vermont's population but nearly 11 percent of Vermont's inmate population, according to the Department of Corrections. A recent study of Vermont State Police traffic stops found minorities were more likely to be pulled over than whites.

"Based on my experience, if you're a young African American male, the police are going to be suspicious and find a reason to pull you over," said veteran Burlington defense attorney David Williams, who represents Alexander.

Alexander sued Hunt, Urbanowicz, and Doucette, along with the police department and town of Bennington. He is seeking unspecified financial compensation.

After his release from prison, Alexander moved back to New York. He's looking for work, Williams said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont is helping to represent Alexander.